The conservative backlash

The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The themes raised in High Noon were also picked up by those who supported the investigations.  The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Randolph Scott played a bounty hunter who arrived in the frontier town of Twin Peaks on the trail of three armed robbers.  The townspeople resented his appearance and some with guilty secrets left town.  He had no idea who the culprits were and bided his time.  The townspeople want them to leave because they don’t like the past being dug up.  The people then tried to buy him off but he would not be deflected from his pursuit of the criminals.  The film can be read as a defence of HUAC investigators who had to burrow into the past of respectable people to uncover their dark secrets, no matter what the cost.  Some of the criminals occupied high positions.  One was even sheriff, but the criminals were only able to maintain their positions by blackmail and threats.  By rooting out these criminal elements, true peace was attained in the town.

Director and producer Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were disgusted by Fred Zinneman’s High Noon and the cycle it created and set out to refute it.  Some of that anger can be seen in an interview with John Wayne in 1974 when asked about High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman:

Hawks was convinced that professional law enforcement officers would refuse help, even in a desperate situation.  In High Noon, Gary Cooper rejected the help of two men who offer assistance – a drunk and a kid.  The retired marshal refused to help Kane because he would be a burden.  In Rio Bravo, Chance chose a drunk, a kid and a retired marshal to help him against the gunfighters.  For Hawks and Wayne, authority was responsible and benign.  It defended the weak and attacked the guilty and the best people could do was to simply co-operate with it.  It was not to be questioned or assisted, it was simply to be obeyed.[4]

What about Carl Foreman?  I’ll tell you about Carl Foreman and his rotten High Noon.  Everybody says High Noon is a great picture because Tiomkin and Grace Kelly were in it … It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  The last thing is old Coop putting the United States marshall’s badge under his feet and stepping on it.  I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of town … Here’s the church, supposed to be an American church and all the women are sitting on one side of the aisle, and all the men on the other.  What kind of American church is that?  And all those women are getting out there and fight those killers and all the men are afraid.  What kind of Western town is that?[1]

Wayne was mistaken about the film, Cooper never stands on the badge.  The church also has men and women sitting together on both sides.  These statements indicate that Wayne may have either never seen the film or not viewed it closely.  Nonetheless, having seen it or not, Wayne despised the film.  Hawks, on the other hand, wasn’t as violent in his denunciation of High Noon.  He said in an interview about his film:

Rio Bravo was made because I didn’t like a picture called High Noon … I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help and finally the Quaker wife had to save him.  That isn’t my idea of a good western sheriff.[2]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But Wayne and Hawks were able to have their say in the Rio Bravo (1959).  In the film, John T. Chance, played by John Wayne, was the sheriff of Rio Bravo who arrested Joe, the brother of a ruthless rancher Nathan Burdette.  The rancher swore that he would get his brother out of jail and began to gather an army of hired guns to do the job.  In one scene Chances’ friend Pat Wheeler, played by Ward Bond, asks him if he needs help.

Suppose I got them.  What would I have.  Some well meaning amateurs.  Most of them worried about their wives and kids.  Burdette has got 30 to 40 men.  All professionals.  The only thing that worries them is seeing their pay … All it would be doing is making more targets to shoot at.  A lot of people would get hurt.  Joe Burdette isn’t worth it.  He isn’t worth one of whose who’d be killed.[3]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Its conservative message of the responsibility of authority fitted in with many films of the right.  Perhaps what made this film so popular was that these authority figures demanded that no freedoms be lost while the fight was on.  It was ranked 8th in the 1959 with rentals of $5.2 million.[5]

The persistence of the theme of the relationship between the lone sheriff figure, the violent thereat and townspeople in Westerns from 1952 until the end of the decade showed the relationship between authority and the people was an area of tremendous concern.  The answers given in the films were not consistent and came from all points of the political spectrum.  The films may not have provided the answers for the audience but their popularity showed that the questions about authority and dealing with threats were being asked.


[1] Playboy May 1974 interview by Mike Parkinson in Donald Shepherd, Robert Slatzer and Dave Grayson, Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, New York, 1983, p. 244.  A careful examination of the badge throwing scene shows a second badge from an earlier take buried behind his foot.  It appeared that Cooper was standing on the second badge from an earlier take.  Wayne may have heard about this flaw in the film second hand which could have distorted his perception.

[2] Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, University of California Press, London, 1982, p. 136.

[3] Rio Bravo, (d) Howard Hawks, (w) Jules Furtham, Leigh Brackett.

[4] This point is remarkably close to the position put by Mankiewicz against DeMille about the role of authority.  Adding strength to Elia Kazan’s belief that it was the conservatives that defeated DeMille, rather than the left.  Elia Kazan A Life, Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 393.

[5] Stenberg, Reel Facts, p. 22.

High Noon and its successors

Riding Shotgun also had anti-McCarthyism themes. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

High Noon had many successors which took up the various themes about McCarthyism in differing ways.  Riding Shotgun (1954) again looked at the political situation in allegorical terms, but with disdain for the hysteria created by McCarthy.  A respected guard on the stage coach Larry Delon, played by Randolph Scott, attempted to warn the town of an impending raid on the town’s ‘Bank Club’ by a gang of criminals.  Delon was almost lynched by the townspeople who believed that he was responsible for the shooting of a stagecoach.  A posse was formed to chase the outlaws who were actually planning to rob the undefended town.  Delon was bailed up in a building throughout the film while the town attempted to lynch him.  Eventually the outlaws raided and Delon foiled the robbery and regained the town’s respect.  The film was not as sharp in its criticism of the worn as in High Noon, but there were some strong scenes where Scott walked through the town with every eye on him, thinking; ‘The city had already tried and found me guilty.[1]  The film was not critical of the law enforcement agencies as the deputy Sheriff was depicted as a sensible man desperately trying to see that no one gets hurt in the town’s desire to lynch Scott.

Unlike High Noon, the film showed that the town was willing to fight, but needed firm leadership.  Without that leadership, the town could turn into a lynch-mob and attack the innocent.  Riding Shotgun was a conservative film that asked for respect for the traditional law enforcement, rather than the hysteria of the mob.

Although not strictly a western, as it was set in contemporary America, Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear cut attacks on the McCarthyite era within the genre.  Bad Day at Black Rock was directed by John Sturges, who was one of the petitioners for Jospeh L. Mankiewicz, and produced by Dore Schary who protested against the Waldorf Declaration.  Schary would work on the film during the day and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings at night.[2]  It was clear that these events had an impact of the filmmakers as the film was a concerted liberal attack on the McCarthyite era.

John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, was a one-armed stranger who stopped at an isolated desert town in California.  His aim was to give to a Japanese farmer a Congressional Medal of Honor, won by his son, who served with Macreedy during the war and saved his life.  It was the first time the train had stopped in four years and the townspeople were clearly threatened by his presence.  Macreedy stumbled across the fact that the town’s leader Reno, played by Robert Ryan, killed the Japanese farmer at the outbreak of the Second World War.  He described the town as being taken over by the ‘guerillas.’  The town was aware of the crime but afraid to fight Reno who was a power-crazed racist and considered the lynching of the Japanese farmer to be a patriotic act.  One of his henchmen Pete Wirth, played by John Ericson, said ‘We were drunk, patriotic drunk,’ to explain the lynching.[3]

Reno was the closest Hollywood got to a portrayal of Joseph McCarthy until the depiction of the crazed Senator in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  He manipulated and terrified the people of the town with the crime.  He described Macreedy as a ‘virus’ which had given the town a fever and had to be destroyed.  Very similar to the way, McCarthy depicted communists as an infection of the American political system.  The Sheriff, played by Dean Jagger, was ineffectual and complaint to Reno’s orders, just as McCarthy blustered his way over the legal system.  Others simply tried to ignore the crime and remained in apathetic fear.  When Macreedy faced and defeated Reno, the town was forced to face the collective guilt of their silence.  The conclusion of the film was optimistic as it showed the town could prosper again with the departure of Reno, just as the American community had to realize the enormity of the damage inflicted by the McCarthyite era before it could begin to move forward again.

The Fastest Gun Alive continued the themes of High Noon. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Other films carried similar messages to High Noon throughout the 1950s.  In At Gunpoint (1955) a shopkeeper played by Fred MacMurray killed a bank robber with a lucky shot.  He was called a hero, but his fellow townspeople deserted him when the robbers plotted reprisals.  MacMurray eventually convinced the town to fight and they defeated the outlaws when they return.  In The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), the townspeople cower in a church while a gunslinger threatened to burn down the town unless their reluctant local hero cam out for a showdown.  They eventually forced him out to face the villain.

In The Tin Star (1957), a sheriff had to stand up to a town turned into a lynch mob to re-establish the authority of law and order.  The prisoners inside his jail were clearly guilty and it was certain they would be hanged or jailed.  The film argued that the lynch mob was not the answer.  Only when the leader of the lynchers was stared down, humiliated and then destroyed did peace come to the town.  If the mob was equated with McCarthyism, the legal approach of the sheriff was the best way for American society to go.  The central figure was a man similar to High Noon’s Will Kane who was bitter and resentful about society but at the end of the film, he picked up ‘the tin star’ to renew the fight against criminals.[4]  Law and order depended on the professional pride and determination of law enforcement officers.  Without them, the weak townspeople would be at the mercy of the bandits and agitators.  The central theme of these films was that the town by its inaction or corruption could collapse into lawlessness.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract.  A stranger played by Audie Murphy rode into town and registered at a hotel.  He was John Gant who made his living goading people into a fight and then killing them in self defence.  His appearance caused a slow breakdown of the town as prominent citizens remembered guilty secrets of the past and were afraid that he has been sent to kill them.  Old antagonisms began to rise an people committed suicide or left town or tried to bribe Gant. The films focused on what fear can do to people.  If you were Gant’s target then you were already dead.  The most effective scenes were when a banker with a guilty secret in his past attempted to buy Gant off the trail.  But Gant would not leave the town until his intended victim was dead.  The law enforcement officers can’t stop him as he was too deadly with the gun, and even managed to stare down the entire town when they tried to drive him out.  The atmosphere of paranoia and fear which pervaded the film with Gant’s arrival and Murphy’s edgy performance as Gant make it one of the most effective successors to High Noon.  At the end of the film, Gant ensured that his target was dead, but he was wounded and rode away.  He could certainly return and wreck havoc again.


[1] Riding Shotgun Warner, (d) Andre De Toth, (w) Tom Blackburn.

[2] Dore Schary, Heyday: An Autobiography of Dore Schary, Berkley Books, Boston, 1969, p. 273.  The Army-McCarthy hearings proved to be the end of the political career of McCarthy.  He charged the army with tolerating communist subversion.  Televised hearings were held before the Senate Armed Forces Committee which left McCarthy thoroughly discredited.  For an account see William Manchester, The Glory and The Dream, Bantam, New York, 1975, pp. 700-716.

[3] Bad Day at Black Rock, (w) John Sturges, (w) Milliard Kaufman

[4] One of the sources for High Noon was a story called The Tin Star by John Cunningham which appeared in Colliers on 6 December 1947.  Behlmer, p. 270.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer Strategic Communication, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.  In the film, Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, returned to this estranged lover Vienna, played by Joan Crawford, who owned a disreputable bar.  A stage robbery occurred in town, and a banker was killed.  The dead man’s sister Emma Small, played by Mercedes McCambridge, convinced a wealthy rancher John McIvers, played by Ward Bond, that the crime had been committed by the Dancin’ Kid, Corey ad Young Turkey, when they were innocent.  Small was jealous of the Dancin’ Kid’s attraction to Vienna.  The accused trio decided to rob a bank since they were being forced to flee the area anyway.  Small made the bank teller swear that Vienna was involved in the robbery.  In response, a posse rode to Vienna’s bar and burned it down.  The posse hanged the injured Turkey who was hiding there.  Eventually, the posse learned the truth about Emma and stood back while Emma and Vienna shoot it out.  Vienna killed Emma and rode off with Johnny.

The plot had all the elements of a standard western plot, even a final shootout, yet it can be read as a political film.  The outlaws can be seen as communists who were blamed for every wrongdoing in town.  Critic Michael Wilmington argued that former gun-man Johnny, represented an ex-Communist called before the HUAC.  Wilmington saw Vienna as a fellow traveller and Emma as a vindictive witness or a politician who used the investigations to destroy the careers of rivals.  McIvers represented big business or law enforcement authorities which, while basically good, had succumbed to the pressure of McCarthy’s tirades.  The townspeople were the American middle class.[1]

Lynching was a key theme in Johnny guitar. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Wilmington’s argument can be taken further, Turkey was promised that he could be saved when he was caught by the posse if he would point an accusatory figure at Vienna.  For Ray and writer Yordan, this was the dilemma of the witnesses before the HUAC investigators.  The fact that he was hung was a reminder that informing did not guarantee survival.  Critic Danny Peary contended that Emma’s attack on Vienna was similar to the techniques used by McCarthyite investigators who assumed that social deviance of any kind was an indication of communism.[2]

The personal political viewpoints of the actors were also interesting. Ward Bond, who was one of the leaders of the lynching party, was President for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which helped HUAC weed out communists in Hollywood.  Sterling Hayden, who played Johnny Guitar, testified before the committee and regretted it all of his life.  Hayden wrote in his autobiography about his testimony that: ‘Not often does a man find himself eulogized for having behaved in a manner that he despises.  I subscribed to a press clipping service.  They sent me two thousand clips from papers, east and west, large and small, and from dozens of magazines.  Most had nothing but praise for my on-shot stoolie.  Only a handful – led by the New York Times – denounced this abrogation of constitutional freedom.’[3]  This casting may have been deliberate or accidental.  Yet the end result was to have actual participants acting out their roles in a political allegory.

Ina Lonely Place, also directed by Ray, did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Apart from Johnny Guitar, Ray had already attacked the investigations in In A Lonely Place (1950).  James W. Palmer, writes about in  ‘In a Lonely Place: Paranoia in the Dream Factory’, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 12, 1985, No. 3, pp. 202 – 210.  The film did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.  The film focused on a writer Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart, who had been rejected by the Hollywood community.  Since returning from the war, he had been unable to write and his drinking and aggressive behavior had led to him become an isolated figure in the Hollywood community.  At the beginning of the film, he invited a hatcheck girl back to his apartment for her to tell him the story of a book which he might turn into a movie.  Dixon sent the woman home and the next morning, her body was found brutally murdered.  Steele was considered to be a prime suspect by the police.  After being questioned and then released by the police, Steele was further isolated by the Hollywood community who saw him as guilty.  Bu the end of the film, Steele, who was a violent man, became a borderline psychotic.  After succumbing to the pressure, he attacked his fiancé and his life was ruined, even though he was eventually cleared of the murder charge.  Steele with his persecutions and paranoia can be read as a symbol of the Hollywood Ten.

This group were a part of the Hollywood community until accused of the ‘crime’ of communism.  Eventually they were abandoned by the community to their own fate.  Film critic James W. Palmer noted that everybody in the film was guilty of not supporting people in need.  He wrote that the real crime was the undermining of human trust through a process of social exclusion.

Ray’s allegorical attack against HUAC in Johnny Guitar probably would have gone over the heads of its audience of the time.  No evidence exists in any reviews of Johnny Guitar that anyone considered it anymore than an interesting western with strong performances from both Crawford and McCambridge.  Indeed Nora Sayre in her survey of cold war films, mentions it only in passing as a light entertainment.[4]  A member of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr. had never heard of the film,[5] although Ray has insisted that contemporary audience got the message about the lynching party being a McCarthyite investigation.[6]

Previous version of this blog at:

https://kevinbrianton.com/westerns-huac-johnny-guitar-1954/


[1] Michael Wilmington, ‘Johnny Guitar’ Velvet Light Trap Spring 1974 in Danny Peary, Cult Movies, Vermillion, UK, 1982, pp. 171-172.

[2] Ibid, p. 172.

[3] Sterling Hayden, Wanderer, Knopf, New York, 1973, p. 366

[4] Nora Saryre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, p. 173.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at a Public Seminar of the Australian Film Institute on 6 March 1991. (Notes taken by author).

[6] Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, ‘Nicholas Ray: Rebel!’, Take One, Vol 5, No. 6, (January) p. 11.

High Noon for HUAC

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The Westerns hold pride of place in American cinema.  They retold the legends and myths of America’s frontier past and had been a feature of cinema virtually since its inception.  In the 1950s, hundreds of westerns were made which dealt with many aspects of American life.  It was perhaps inevitable, with the stifling of direct political criticism, and the pressing concerns of McCarthyism and communism, that westerns would take on a political dimension in the 1950s.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The 1947 investigation proved to be only a testing of the waters for HUAC.  The Hollywood 10 went to prison in September 1950 and the committee re-gathered momentum to pounce on Hollywood again.  The Hollywood 10’s imprisonment had increased the power of HUAC to make it feared throughout the film industry.  Director Joseph Losey told an interviewer that ‘the most terrifying thing about the atmosphere was seeing people succumb, and seeing all protest disappear.  Because if you did protest, you’d had it.’[1]  The second HUAC investigations were to be larger and more systematic and they destroyed the remnants of the liberal-left in Hollywood without any effective opposition.  In the middle of these rising fears about HUAC’s return, Carl Foremen was writing the screenplay for a western called High Noon.

The film was about the desperate efforts of the Sheriff Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, to get help from the townspeople to fight Frank Miller and his gang, who were being released from jail that day, and who had promised revenge on the town and Kane.  Miller, who Kane put in prison for murder, had been pardoned, and his gang were gathering at train station to meet when the train arrived at noon.  Kane approached all the town leaders for assistance to fight Miller but they all abandoned him.  The town and church leaders demanded that he leave town, claiming that the gang would leave the town alone if he was not there.  Kane failed in his attempts and faced the gunmen alone.  After defeating the four outlaws, Kane threw his badge onto the street in disgust at the town and left.  The screenwriter wanted the audience to equate the people of Cooper’s town with those who suddenly deserted their blacklisted friends in Hollywood.

Kane’s disgust equaled Foreman’s as friends humbled themselves and begged for help from the Hollywood community without success.  Foreman had been called to testify in front of HUAC and intended to be an un-co-operative witness. He said his friends began turning their backs on him even though he was not a communist:

My associates were afraid for themselves – I don’t believe them – and tried to get off the film, unsuccessfully.  They went to Gary Cooper and he refused (to go along with them).  Fred Zimmerman, too, was very staunch and very loyal, so was out backer, Bruce Church.

There are scenes in the film that are taken from life.  The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers.  And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and come back with his gun and asks, where are the others?  Cooper says there no others … I became the Gary Cooper character.[2]

Foreman depicted Hollywood society in a poor light as the threat of McCarthyism approached.  The pillars of the community were afraid that a gunfight would jeopardise business and possible future investment in the town and urged Kane to leave.  Their attitude was similar to the studio heads who abandoned their employees on the slightest of pretexts to avoid bad publicity and poor box office returns.  The religious leaders also pulled back from Kane because they cannot sanction violence.  He was only offered help by only a 14 year old boy and the town drunk and he turned down both.  The retired marshal wanted to help but could not because of his arthritis.

The point of the film was that the town united could have easily defeated the threat.  Instead the Hollywood community pursued their own individual selfish ends and were torn apart.  The point was not lost after the film’s release and Foreman was blacklisted for his efforts for many years.  He was ‘morosely pleased’ when the message of the film was understood by the conservatives.[3]

Grace Kelly supports her husband in High Noon Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Foreman certainly had no doubts when he wrote the screenplay that the town was Hollywood and the four men approaching represented HUAC and when the film was released The New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote:

It is a story that bears a close resemblance to things that are happening today where people are traumatised by bullies and surrendering their freedoms … (Kane) is a man with the sense to meet a challenge, not duck and hope it will go away … The marshal can give a few lessons to the people of Hollywood today.[4]

However, it is doubtful whether the audience of the time saw it in that light.  One of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr, who knew Carl Foreman, said he could see no anti-HUAC message in the film beyond the general theme of standing up for oneself.[5]  If members of the Hollywood 10, who were more sensitive on the topic did not get the message, and knew the screenwriter, what hope was there for the general audience.  The film had an anti-HUAC message but it is uncertain whether that message got across to the audience.  Director Zinnemann said he did not make films to prove anything.[6]

The film can also be read as a defence of McCarthy with a lone figure standing  up against the communist threat.  The heroic figure of Kane could be seen as McCarthy desperately trying to awaken the community to the impending threat of communism.  Critic Phillip French has also suggested that the film was about the United States reluctantly renewing its role in world affairs.[7]  High Noon started a cycle of movies with the lone or aloof law official figure, struggling with both the town and some form of menace on the horizon.  Something in that formula clicked with the audience and the film finished eighth in the box office for 1952.[8]  The audience responded to the film but it is unclear to exactly what they were responding.


[1] Tom Milne (ed.). Losey on Losey, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968, p. 90.

[2] Rudy Behlmer, Behind the Scenes: The Making of, Samuel French, New York, 1990, p. 276.

[3] Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of he Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982, p. 176.

[4] New York Times, 3 August 1952.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at an Australian Film Institute Seminar on 26 March 1991.  (Notes taken by author).

[6] Behimer, Behind p. 277.

[7] Phillip French, Westerns: Aspects of a Genre, Secker and Warburg, London, 1977, p. 35

[8] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, p. 21.

The failure of anti-communist films and Pickup on South Street (1953)

One film which broke the anti-communist mould was Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

In the early 1950s, conservative forces in Hollywood began to see that their anti-communist cinematic efforts had been failures.  The films were not popular at the box office and the critical responses were poor or weak. During the Second World War, the reverse was true. Hollywood had made many popular anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese films during the Second World War at a furious pace.  There were no anti-communist equivalents of Casablanca or Mrs Miniver. Somehow these anti-communist films did not work.  My Son John had an established and acclaimed director in Leo McCarey working from his own script, its main star Robert Walker was still basking in his triumph of Strangers On A Train, the celebrated stage actress Helen Hayes had returned to the screen to play John’s mother and Dean Jagger had recently won an academy award for Twelve O’Clock High (1950), yet the film was a complete disaster.  Accoldades were in short supply. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did nominate McCarey for an Oscar for Writing (Motion Picture Story). Even with the star power of John Wayne, Big Jim McLain, was the twenty-seventh most successful film of 1952, grossing $2,600,000. 

The reasons for their failure lay elsewhere. When Cecil B. DeMille was appointed to the State Department’s International Motion Picture Unit as a consultant to make cold war films in 1953, he decried the lack of support for anti-communist pictures.

The American Government would not arm its soldiers with guns made by amateurs.  Neither should it arm … (the State) Department with films by amateurs.[1]

DeMille claimed that the Soviet Union had spent $14 billion on propaganda while the United States spent $75 million.  The Soviet Union was producing better propaganda than the United States.  He argued that more resources were needed to win the propaganda cold war.  Yet the studios had poured in considerable resources for anti-communist films and none had worked.  The films were not allocated second rate talent.  Directors William Wellman, Gordon Douglas, Leo McCarey, William Dietrele, William Cameron Menzies, Elia Kazan, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Josef von Sternberg and others represent a group of highly talented people.  It was not the lack of talent which caused their failure or the pace at which they were cranked out by the studios. 

After the release of Walk East on Beacon and other anti-communist efforts, the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther lashed out at Hollywood for its failure to make effective anti-communist films.  He argued that the United States was in a state of confusion and anxiety over the threat of communism and he wanted Hollywood to ‘clarify the realities of the situation and the true extent of domestic peril.’  Crowther thought that the plots of the film were reworkings of old ideas and reflected a deeper problem in the film industry.

(In Hollywood) no one, resenting aspersions, dares raise a clear contentious voice.  Caution is king.  Intellectually Hollywood is paralyzed.

In this grave state of apprehension, it isn’t likely that the people out there are going to come through with any … literal dramatization of the actual shape of the Communist peril.  Indeed it is not very likely that anyone will henceforth want to touch the subject of communism with a ten foot pole.  Not only is it ticklish as a topic, but pictures about it have proved conspicuously unbefitting as far as the paying public is concerned.[2]

One film which broke the anti-communist mould was Samuel Fuller’s Pick Up on South Street (1953).  It was not an easy film to make. According to Lisa Dombrowsi, in her book The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill you, the script ran afoul of the the PCA, for “excessive brutality and sadistic beatings, of both men and women”. Although a revised script was accepted soon after, the studio was forced to shoot multiple takes of a particular scene in which the manner of Jean Peters and Richard Kiley frisk each other for loot was considered too risqué.

The film begins when a pickpocket Skip McCoy, played by Richard Widmark, stole some microfilm from the purse of Candy, the former mistress of communist Joey. The film contained a secret chemical formulae and Candy attempted to get the film back from McCoy for the psychopathic Joey.  She falls in love with McCoy whole doing so, but McCoy was not interested and wanted to sell the microfilm back to the communists for $25,000.  He eventually also falls in love with Candy, but only after he found out that she would not betray him to the communists.  He was enraged when Candy was beaten and shot by Joey.  He followed Joey and dealt out a savage beating in revenge.

McCoy was not interested in seeking revenge until he has his own personal motives to do so.  When an FBI agent asked him, ‘Do you know what Communism is?’ Skip replies ‘Who cares?’  They press him to act out of patriotic motives and he refused.

McCoy was not interested in seeking revenge until he has his own personal motives to do so. It is his love for Candy – not his political interests – that drive his revenge.

Detective:  If you refuse to co-operate you’ll be as guilty as those traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb

McCoy:  Are you waving the flag at me?[3]

Fuller later argued that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had lunch with him and studio head Zanuck, and was told that he detested Fuller’s work and especially Pickup on South Street. Hoover particuarly did not like Widmark’s character saying “Are you waving the flag at me?”, He did not approve of the the scene of a Federal agent bribing an informer and other things. “Zanuck backed Fuller up, telling Hoover he knew nothing about making movies, but removed references to the FBI in the film’s advertising.” It is simple to identify Hoover’s annoyance. McCoy was only interested in money.  He said to Candy: ‘So you are Red.  Who cares?  Your money is as good as anybody’s.’  The film was a clear break from any other anti-communist film of the time.  Indeed it turned everything on its head.  The criminal world looked down on communism.  Moe, who informed on Skip for $50 to the police, refused to give Skip’s address to the communists because ‘even in our crumby kind of business, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere’.[4]  Moe doesn’t even know why she doesn’t like communism.  She says ‘What do I know about commies? Nothing? I know I just don’t like them.’[5]

Most other anti-communist films defended the role of the informer.  In Pickup On South Street, the stance on informing was reversed.

Director Sam Fuller was laughing at the seriousness of patriotic films and in doing so produced one of the most eccentric and individual anti-communist films of the 1950s.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster
Moe: Some people peddle apples, lamb chops, lumber.  I peddle information.  Skip ain’t sore.  He understands.  We live in a different kind of world.  Once in while he gets how under the collar if I sell him short.
Candy: But you wouldn’t sell him to a commie.
Moe: What do you think I am?  An informer?[6]

Moe was in informer to the police and yet despised informers to communists.  The hero of this film was a unrepentant and unpatriotic criminal.  The law enforcement agencies appeared to be flat-footed and easily misled by the criminals.  The police even needed informers like Moe to round up suspects.  Fuller was laughing at the seriousness of patriotic films and in doing so produced one of the most eccentric and individual anti-communist films of the 1950s. The communism angle is so slight that when the movie was released in France, the dubbed soundtrack changed the villains from communist spys to drug dealers. The French title “Le port de la drogue” can be translated as “Pier of Drugs”. [7] 

Fuller repeated the formula of personal, rather than political revenge, with Richard Widmark leading a submarine in Chinese controlled waters, in Hell And High Water (1954).  Widmark was a mercenary who would sell his services to the highest bidder.  The submarine crew uncovered a plot by the Chinese to have a disguised B29 drop atomic bombs on Manchuria to blame the United States for starting a nuclear war.  Widmark couldn’t care less until his most loyal crew member was killed by a communist prisoner.  Only after his friend’s, did he become committed to stopping the communist plot.  Critic Nicholas Garnham argued that ‘the Fuller protagonist is always caught in a crossfire between warring totalitarian organizations.’  Pickup on South Street finished 62nd in the Variety rankings for 1953.[8]


[1] Hollywood Reporter, 6 October 1953.

[2] New York Times, 8 June 1952.

[3] Pick-Up On South Street, (d) Samuel Fuller, (w) Samuel Fuller.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] For a discussion of Fuller’s anti-communism and his views on national identity see Nicholas Garham, Fuller, Secker and Warburg in association with the British Film Institute, 1971, pp. 106 – 133.

[8] Variety, 6 January 1954.

My Son John ( 1952)

My Son John was a serious attempt to alert America to, what director Keo McCarey considered, a dangerous and pressing threat.  The film seemed to have absorbed the political tensions of Hollywood during that strained time.  From its opening scenes, it was a gloomy tense depiction of strangling the American family.
Image from eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

The links between sexuality and communism were seen in other films, but none more pointed than My Son John (1952) which linked political subversion to sexual activity. Producer, writer and director Leo McCarey was one of the leading anti-communist campaigners in Hollywood,[1] and his film My Son John was a serious attempt to alert America to, what he considered, a dangerous and pressing threat.  McCarey was a staunch anti-Communist and had joined Wood in testifying to HUAC in October 1947. He had directed Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Marys (1945), which were very popular films with Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley. McCarey told HUAC his films were not successful in Russia because they contained God. He wanted Hollywood to produce anti-Communist films as it had done in the Second World War against fascism. In 1952, McCarey would do just that and direct one of the more feverish anti-Communist films in My Son John – the final political messages of which were fashioned by DeMille. The film seemed to have absorbed the political tensions of Hollywood during that strained time.  From its opening scenes, it was a gloomy tense depiction of strangling the American family.

The story began as Ben and Chuck Jefferson, played by James Young and Richard Jaeckel, went off to fight in the Korean War.  They were blonde clean-cut American boys who played football.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The film witnessed the return of Helen Hayes – the first lady of american Theatre – after 18 years away from the screen. The story began as Ben and Chuck Jefferson, played by James Young and Richard Jaeckel, went off to fight in the Korean War.  They were blonde clean-cut American boys who played football, while their brother John, played by Robert Walker, was dark haired and read books.  John worked at some mysterious job in Washington.  Their mother, played by Helen Hayes, was distressed that he did not return for their farewell party.  When he did return, Hayes was shocked to learn that he scoffed at his father’s membership of the American Legion.  Suspicious increased when he told his parents that he believed that Bible stories should be taken on a symbolic rather than literal level.

With the evidence mounting fast, his mother Lucille, played by Helen Hayes, made John swear on the Bible that he was not a communist.  He was quite happy to oblige because he was an atheist and was not afraid of eternal damnation by making such an oath.  The Bible was also used in a scene where John’s father Dan sang John a song he composed for his American Legion Friends.

            If you don’t like you’re Uncle Sammy;

Then go back to the your home o’er the sea;

To the land from where you came;

Whatever its’ name;

But don’t be ungrateful to me;

If you don’t like the stars in Old Glory;

If you don’t like the red, white and blue;

Then don’t act like he cur in the story;

Don’t bite the hand that’s feeding you.[2]

He then bashed John over the head with the bible when he laughed.  The scene appeared to be strongly influenced by a similar scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, where a mother read the story of Exodus from the bible to her two sons.  One son also scoffed at the reading and was struck over the head by the other son with a newspaper.  In an earlier draft of the screenplay of My Son John, the father struck John when he scoffed at the commandment about honoring your parents.  The similarity was no accident as DeMille’s political speech writer Donald Hayne wrote the original drafts for the final speech by John Jefferson.[3]  To scoff at the ten commandments was the equivalent of extolling communism for DeMille who saw them as the moral basis to fight communism.[4]  Furthermore, to scoff was direct proof of communist tendencies, hence the father’s righteous and violent reaction.

Director Leo McCarey watches Robert Walker and Heleln Hayes. The relationship between Mother and Son was a bizarre subtext to this anti-Communist film.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

DeMille exercised absolute control over his staff and it would be impossible to believe that Hayne wrote the speech without DeMille’s direction, approval and consent.  DeMille’s writers considered themselves to be ‘trained seals’ who merely translated the director’s thoughts onto paper.[5]  Even though he has not listed in the credits, it is clear that DeMille had a great deal of power within Hollywood’s anti-communist community and that power extended to influencing the anti-communist content of films of other directors.

John’s father Dan, played by Dean Jagger, swore that if he even thought his son was a communist, he would take him into the back yard and shoot with a double-barrel shotgun.  McCarey’s depiction of the all-American father was drunk, violent, and stupid.  Throughout the film, the father was extremely hostile to John’s intellectual achievements, and yet the mother’s character was even worse.  She hovered on the edge of a nervous breakdown and there were several hints to her being menopausal.  In an earlier draft of the film, the message was clear that she was going through a ‘stage of life’ and needed to constantly take pills.[6]  When the mother heard that John was being investigated by the FBI for being communist, she regarded it as solid evidence that he was guilty. In the draft script, she actually collapsed before testifying that her son was a communist.  The audience was meant to conclude that her communist son was undermining her mental and physical health.  It would be easier to believe that these demented parents led their children into communism.

Like I Married a Communist, My Son John linked intellectual activity to communism.  John was constantly compared with his blonde brothers.  They played football and were doing their patriotic duty in Korea while John was an intellectual and a traitor.  T seemed failure to play football was one of the key elements of becoming a political subversive.  The mother recalled going to a football game to see Ben and Chuck play.  As she supported their football team, she would turn to John and barrack for him in his own personal football game.  The audience was told that John’s brothers were pulled out of school to pay for John’s education.  These ideas neatly fitted with the anti-intellectual atmosphere of the McCarthyite investigators.  It was a time when the word ‘egghead’ became a pejorative term for intellectuals.[7]  While making the film, McCarey told The New York Times:

(My Son John) is about a mother and father who struggle and slaved.  They had no education.  They put all their money into higher education for their sons.  But on of the kids gets too bright.  It poses the problem – how bright can you get?

He takes up a lot of things including atheism… The mother only knew two books – her Bible and her cookbook.  But who’s the brighter in the end – the mother or the son.[8]

But there was something more sinister than intellectual curiosity which led to communism.  In his review of the film Bosley Crowthey in the New York Times wrote that intellectuals were seen as ‘dangerous perverters of youth.’[9]  It was not only in the field of ideas that he was corrupt.  John’s twisted relationship with his mother indicated murkier reasons for the descent into the abyss.  Nora Sayre noted that John was deceitful and charming toward her and there was an undisguised hostility towards his father.  His performance was as close as Hollywood would dare come to that of a homosexual.[10]  The father looked on in disgust when he met his professor from his old University.  In the early draft of the screenplay, Dan says to his wife:  ‘Did you see that greeting?  I thought they were going to kiss each other.’[11]  John’s communism was the result of a combination of anti-athletic, intellectual and homosexual tendencies.

In the original screenplay, John’s mother was in a position to put John in prison for his communist activities.  She could not bring herself to testify against John to the FBI and collapsed and was then put into a hospital.  The draft screenplay was incomplete, but it did include notes of a speech where John renounced his communist past while making a speech to a high school.  The speech, which incriminated him, was made even though the FBI was unable to convict him.  John was arrested and taken to prison.  In the final scene, he visited his mother in hospital and told her of his return to the ‘side of the angels’.[12]

The film required a different ending as Walker died before the end of My Son John.  Some hasty rewriting was needed, and McCarey used some outtakes from Strangers On A Train given to him by director Alfred Hitchcock to spin out an ending.[13]  To complete the film.  John went through a remarkable conversion to capitalism at the end of the film and was immediately gunned down by his fellow communists beneath the Lincoln Memorial.

In the film from the 1930s through to the 1950s, the figure of Lincoln was used to bolster the political viewpoints of the filmmakers.  Abraham Lincoln was the most deified on the Presidents in the American popular imagination.  In Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), the dejected Smith returned to fight the corrupt politicians in the Senate after seeing a small child in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  Director John Ford repeatedly used Lincoln as an icon of fundamental American wisdom in films such as The Iron Horse (1924) and Young Mr Linclon (1939).  In Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the Secretary of State, played by Edward G. Robinson, looked at a picture of Lincoln, while pondering the fate of the Cheyenne Indians, and said ‘What would he do?’ and the problems of Cheyenne Indians were soon resolved.  Lincoln was also used to support the closing anti-communist message in I Was a Communist for the FBI and The FBI Story (1958).

Lincoln was once again the icon of traditional American values.  John’s death at the feet of the memorial showed that his political conversion and redemption was complete.  He had paid his price for becoming a communist.  In the original script he cried out:  ‘I am a native American communist spy – and may God have mercy on my soul!’[14]  The final film made John pay for his communism with his death.  At the conclusion, a tape recording of his planned speech was played to a graduating class.

I was going to help to make a better world.  I was flattered when I was immediately recognized as an intellect.  I was invited to homes where only superior minds commuted.  It excited my freshman fancy to hear daring thoughts … A bold defiance of the only authorities I’d ever known: my church and my father and my mother.  I know that many of you have experienced that stimulation.  But stimulants lead to narcotics.  As the seller of habit-forming dope gives the innocent their first inoculation, with a cunning worthy of a serpent, there are other snakes waiting lying to satisfy the desire of the young to give themselves something positive…[15]

The concluding speech described communism as an addictive drug.  This did not explain why John was able to break his addiction so easily.  During his final speech a ray of light shines down on the stage indicating God’s approval, when John asked for God’s mercy, it was surely given.

The final speech was quite different form Hayne’s original script.[16]  Hayne wanted to emphasise that the laws against communist agents were weak and the FBI could not have convicted John.  He gave up any chance of escape and confessed that he had been passing secrets to the Russians.[17]  McCarey, however wanted to drive home the inherent evil of communism.  McCarey’s draft for John’s final speech was extremely close to the final film and it seemed that Walker’s death did little to change its direction.

Once again, communism was expunged by a severe act of contrition.  Both Robert Ryan in I Married A Communist and Robert Walker in My Son John had to perform this painful act to clear themselves of communism, just as those in Hollywood had to name names before the HUAC investigations in order to clear themselves.  McCarey’s depiction of communism was the blackest of the 1950s.  It was as an addictive drug peddled by intellectuals with homosexual tendencies to young impressionable minds.  The thin academic air of college was a breeding ground for these delusions.  Young people who wanted to do something positive may fall victim to its clutches.  Yet the alternative in McCarey’s world was not much better.  Violent and threatening, verging on psychotic, fathers and neurotic mothers were the all-American couple.  These parents would sacrifice their children to the authorities through guilt by association.  He film rationalized that the techniques used throughout America and Hollywood were necessary and desirable.  It argued that being investigated was the same as being guilty; that authorities were impeccable in their research and pursuit of enemies and never made mistakes.  John’s confession at the end of the film justified the physical and mental battering he had received from his mother, his father and the authorities.  The confession was a justification of HUAC’s investigations and the stance taken by the studio heads.  When the film was released, it was not surprising that DeMille said it was a great film and showed that McCarey was a great American.[18]  The film was, however, universally condemned by film reviewers.  My Son John represented the low water mark of Hollywood’s dealing with communism and the film did not make Variety’s list for the year despite some heavy advertising.[19] Most reviewers slammed the film, aside from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times who praised some aspects of it; but even he had grave concerns about its political dogmatism.

Bernard Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail in his book The Screen is Red. The film’s production fell into a shambles with the death of lead actor Robert Walker, and an ending of sorts was created – with some unheralded assistance by Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. The remaining film is uncomfortable to watch; it contains one disturbing scene in which an angry father attacks his communist son for laughing at his conservative jingoism. Despite the contrived conclusion, Dick describes McCarey as a master of plot resolution. He argues that McCarey gave viewers an ending that was “dramatic and reflective,” [117] providing an accurate description of America in the early years of the Cold War. His respectful analysis is at odds with both contemporary reviewers and later critics, who see it as a mixture of hysterical anti-communism tinctured with a vague homophobia – along with some disturbing ideas about motherhood.


[1] Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition, p. 259.

[2] My Son John, (d) Leo McCarey, (w) Leo McCarey.

[3] Draft of final speech of My Son John, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[4] A full discussion will be in the chapter on biblical epics.

[5] Quote from unnamed writer in Motion Picture Daily, 16 December 1949.  Accounts of DeMille’s legendary treatment of writers can be found in Ring Lardner Jr., ‘The Sign of the Boss’, Screenwriter, November 1945, and Phil Koury, Yes, Mr DeMille, G.P.Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1976.

[6] Undated draft script of My Son John, Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brighan Young University, Provo, Utah.

[7] William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream A Narrative History of America 1932 – 1972, Bantam, New York, 1975, pp. 625 – 626.

[8] New York Times, 18 March 1952.  At the end of the original script, John asks his mother to bake cookies for him in prison.

[9] New York Times, 9 April 1952.

[10] Sayre, Running Time, p.96.  Walker’s performance is close to his acclaimed role of Bruno in Strangers On A Train where again his performance had strong homosexual overtones.  See Donald Spoto, Art Of Alfred Hitchcock, Dolphin, New York, 1976, p. 212 and for a differing view see Robin Wood, Hitchcock Film’s Revisited, Columbia University Press, New York, 1960, pp. 347 – 348.  McCarey did claim that Hitchcock was a strong influence for the film, New York Times, 9 April 1952.

[11] Draft script of My Son John, p. 11 Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Walker died after being prescribed some sedatives by doctors after emotional outbursts on the set of My Son John.  He had a history of problems with alcohol and had suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1940s.  David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, Secker and Warburg, London, 1975, p. 595.

[14] Hayne, Donald John’s Speech, 2 June 1951, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[15] My Son John, (d) Leo McCarey, (w) Leo McCarey.

[16] Hayne, Donald John’s Speech, 2 June 1951, and Leo McCarey, Leo John’s Speech, 10 August 1951.  Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[17]Undated draft script of My Son John, Ibid.

[18] Cecil B. DeMille to Leo McCarey, 3 April 1952.  Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[19] The film’s advertising focused on a non-existent sex scene.  The film was condemned by most film reviewers at the time.  One belated defence of the film is in Leland A. Poague, The Hollywood Professionals: Wilder and McCarey, London, Tantry Press, 1980.

HUAC hearings and the end of liberal Hollywood

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

Conservative ideologue Ayn Rand was angry about the focus of the 1947 HUAC hearings, as she had wanted to examine The Best Years of Our Lives. Committee head J. Parnell Thomas argued with her saying that if the film was attacked, there would be a furor. The fact that Rand may have been able to approach the head of the committee to complain about the way she had been interviewed strongly indicated that the friendly witnesses were stage managed.  No unfriendly witness had such an opportunity. [1]   It also demonstrated the obsession of the committee with publicity. He would later link the investigation of communism in the film industry to the leaking of atomic secrets to the Russians. Journalists were intrigued and showed up in droves to find it was a media stunt and Thomas had nothing.

The Best Years of Our Lives dominated the box office and scooped the Oscars, becoming the most successful film of the year.  After the HUAC investigations of 1947, director William Wyler claimed that he wouldn’t be allowed to make films such as The Best Years of Our Lives anymore because of HUAC.  He warned that the committee was making decent people afraid to express their political opinions by creating fear in Hollywood.  Wyler said fear would lead to self-censorship and eventually the screen would be paralysed.[2]


Crossfire is a 1947 film noir which deals with antisemitism.
It was part of a liberal flowering of films in post war period. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Wyler’s warnings about censorship seem unjustified.  Several films were made on sensitive topics such as racial prejudice from 1947 through to 1951.  These films included Crossfire (1947), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Pinky (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), Intruder in the Dust (1949), No Way Out (1950), and Storm Warning (1950).  Even westerns began taking a liberal turn with films such as Broken Arrow (1950) and Devil’s Doorway (1949) depicting Indians in a positive light.  To varying degrees these films showed that Hollywood could tackle social subjects well.  Capitalism was also the subject of allegorical attack.  Abraham Polonsky made two successful radical films in his short-lived film career as screenwriter and director in the 1940s.  Both Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948) have been read as Marxist critiques of capitalism.[3]  All My Sons (1948), based on Arthur Miller’s play, depicted an industrialist was willing to sell defective planes to the Airforce to stay in business.  But this brief flowering of liberal and radical films was cut short in 1951 at the time of the second HUAC investigation of Hollywood and the lead up to the 1952 Presidential election.

Hollywood’s political vision in the immediate post-war period was in turmoil.  The caustic anti-communism was competing with a vision of liberal tolerance.  Overall it was the liberal films which won the popularity stakes, with Pinky being the second most popular film of 1949.[4]  But their popularity did not guarantee their production.  With the second and more extensive HUAC investigation in 1951, the political pendulum had swung so far to the right that liberalism was tainted with being soft on communism.  Some people argued that the State Department and the Truman administration had lost China to the communists. This was idea so pervasive that it even strongly affected the Kennedy administration.  He was determined to be seen to be strong on communism as a Democrat President.  His determination led to events like the Bay of Pigs invasion and intervention in Vietnam.  [5]  After 1951, there was no such confusion in the political message from Hollywood.  The diet of films was straight anti-communism with no liberal trimmings.

Big Jim McLain (1951), was more of a public relations exercise for the HUAC investigators, than a film.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Big Jim McLain (1951), was more of a public relations exercise for the HUAC investigators, than a film.  It was produced by the ultra-conservative actor John Wayne and was based on the experiences of HUAC investigator William Wheeler and it claimed to be made with the full co-operation of the committee with access to cases from HUAC files.  The film linked HUAC to American icons. After the opening credits, the narrator quotes from the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet. It then immediately praises the House Committee on Un-American Activities for its attack on communism despite “undaunted by the vicious campaign of slander launched against them.” Wayne was targeting HUAC’s opponents in Hollywood.The film began with the assumption that anybody who was a communist after 1945 was a traitor or spy or both – a few clearly stated by J. Edgar Hoover.  HUAC investigators were able to track down communist subversives but the committee could do little with them once they had took the fifth amendment.  The investigators taped several conversations about a far-fetched plot to tie up the wharfs by infecting them with some kind of bacteria.  The infestation would be the basis for long industrial dispute which would be prolonged by communist agents in management and unions.  Once again it was a waterfront union as in I Married A Communist.  This effort would be the same as putting ‘another division in the field’ in Asia. European distributors were not so impressed with the plot. According to Wikipedia, “In some European markets the film was retitled as Marijuana and dispensed with the communist angle, making the villains drug dealers instead. This was achieved entirely through script changes and dubbing. ” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Jim_McLain

Jim McLain, played by John Wayne, and the Hawaiian police force uncovered the plot, but only arrested those responsible for the accidental death of a communist stooge.  The audience were left wondering why the communists were not behind bars for murder of McLain’s partner.  The film’s aim, however, was to reinforce Wayne’s view that the constitution was designed to protect good citizens, not those who would tear it apart.  The communists were straight out criminals and thugs, who betrayed each other and murdered Wayne’s partner.  At one stage, McLain fought the entire gang single handedly and was so honorable that he would not punch out one communist because he was too short.  McLain said: ‘We don’t hit the little guy.  That’s the difference between us and you.’[6]  The communists take a fifth amendment and go free at the end of the film.

The real objects of Wayne’s attack, however, were those who refused to testify before HUAC, while informers on communists were greatly praised.  At one point, McLain and his partner visited an old couple who told them that their estranged son was a communist.  This evidence provided the vital clue which broke a communist cell in Hawaii.  Informing was a selfless act of patriotism, even if it meant naming your own son.  Big Jim McLain was ranked 27th by Variety making $2.6 million in rentals.[7]  It was the most successful of the anti-communist films of the early 1950s possibly because of the immense popularity of John Wayne.


According to the film’s Wikipedia entry “Nancy Olson (pictured left) hated the script but figured that six weeks in Hawaii and a chance to work with a star like John Wayne seemed a good enough reason to accept. She thought the film would flop and nobody would see it. She was right to a degree – it wasn’t one of Wayne’s more successful pictures – but she didn’t count on how often it would appear on television. She later said people stopped her all the time to mention it. Olson, a staunch liberal Democrat, said she and Wayne would often have political arguments but she would always let Wayne have the last word. ” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Jim_McLain
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] Branden, p. 201. 

[2] Gordon Kahn, Hollywood on Trial, Boni and Caer, New York, 1948, p. 221.

[3] Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair and Politics From The Depression to the Fifties, Midland, USA, 1981, p. 278.

[4] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, 1982, p. 20.

[5] For a treatment of the fears of the liberals in the Kennedy administration see David Halberstam The Best and the Brightest, Fawcett crest, USA, 1973.

[6] Big Jim McLain (d) Edward Ludwig, (w) James Edward Grant.

[7] Variety, 7 January 1953.